I absolutely dread networking. No matter how many times I’ve been sent to industry events to hand out business cards and pitch products, I would find myself clinging to the outside of the room and avoiding eye contact, walking alone between seminars. The idea of walking up to people and introducing myself filled me with nauseating panic.
I know that I’m not alone in this. Many other introverts face the same aversion to networking events. This isn’t because we’re shy or antisocial – there’s science on our side that can explain the difference in brain chemistry. As psychoanalyst Dr Marti Olsen Laney explains in her book The Introvert Advantage, introverts have a higher sensitivity to their environment because information travels down a longer neural pathway as we process events and interactions alongside feelings. This means that it’s less about avoiding conversation – what we hate is small talk. Introverts are hard wired to actively seek out deeper connections, whereas extroverts get dopamine hits from the “win” of a new connection.
When I started at Maynard Leigh Associates, part of my induction was to attend our one-day Personal Impact course. We bill this as a programme to help individuals make a good impression on others and communicate their message – not just useful for interpersonal development, but specifically excellent for networking. Not only did this allow me to understand the product, it also gave me a chance to work directly with our executive coach Susie Fugle to improve my networking skills. Here’s some methods I learned:
To gain attention, be attentive. To become interesting, be interested. Networking isn’t just about going up to people and talking about yourself, it’s about listening to others and being open to what they have to say. Use your natural curiosity and see if there’s any natural way you can add value, instead of inauthentically pushing your service or product.
This is an area where introverts have the advantage. Networking is usually built around surface level small talk; however, network science suggests that stronger connections are built on multiplex ties. This means that when we uncover commonalities with others (e.g. similar job, grew up in the same area, have similar aged kids), we like and trust those people more. This means that in the long term, the relationships we build are more valuable. Try having some open questions available that will help you find shared areas of interest.
Don’t feel that you need to push your way into a conversation immediately. Give yourself time to breathe, observe, and analyse the situation. Is there anyone else who looks nervous or uncomfortable that you could approach?
This is something our coach told us on the day that really stuck with me. If you’re at a networking event, chances are that the people you’re there with are going to be open to making new contacts. Otherwise, why did they come? Most people feel shy in these situations, even if they look more confident, and many may be waiting for you to make the first move. Practice joining conversations – it can be as simple as asking, “Can I join you? What are you talking about?”
So many courses like this teach you how to fake it ‘til you make it – to take on the characteristics of an extrovert so you can grin and bear your way through the day. Maynard Leigh’s approach is different. We could use the session as a rehearsal space to help us combat our fears – for example, entering a room and approaching closed groups who were already in conversation. Having an active but safe environment to practise behaviour meant that I was able to try and find out what worked for me personally.
Attending events which have networking as an advertised benefit no longer feels daunting. I can focus on quality of conversation rather than quantity of connections, and I don’t need to force myself to be someone I’m not to get the benefit.